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Rail Services: Cumbria

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 20 June 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of rail services in Cumbria.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Cheryl. I will try to make my speech a little shorter than it would have been, to allow time for the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who shares my deep concerns on this issue.

The Lakes line, between Oxenholme and Windermere in my constituency, may be only a short, 12-mile stretch of railway, but when it comes to significance, it punches far above its length. The Lake district is in its first full year of being a world heritage site, meaning many thousands more tourists, at least, visiting our part of the world. The Lakes line is essential to those visitors accessing the astounding natural beauty of the national park and surrounding areas and the wonderful tourism industry that provides such a breadth of experiences for locals and visitors alike. Our tourism industry generates £3 billion a year, supports 60,000 jobs and is vital to our local economy, but the Lakes line service is not only used by tourists. It is also a key part of the lives of many locals. It is used by hundreds of commuting schoolchildren and workers and is a means of accessing vital services—or at least that is how it used to be. Over the past few months, that has all changed.

When 200 of us walked in protest along the length of the Lakes line 10 days ago, what had been a bustling line was deserted. There were no people at the stations and no trains on the tracks. And let us not fall into the trap of believing that the new timetables are entirely to blame for this catastrophe. Services on the Furness line and the Lakes line have been consistently failing and regularly cancelled ever since Northern took over the two lines in April 2016. This April alone saw 160 cancellations just on the Lakes line. By itself, that substandard provision would be totally unacceptable, but Northern has taken underperformance to new heights.

Like so many others in Cumbria, I was horrified to hear Northern’s announcement on Monday 4 June that all trains on the Lakes line were to be completely suspended—a train line with no trains. The Northern franchise is huge, covering all the local and commuter services in the north-east, Yorkshire and almost all the north-west of England, yet since the introduction of Northern’s interim timetable on 11 June, one in five of all the cancellations on the entire huge network has been on the relatively small Lakes line. Indeed, it is the only line in the country on which services have been completely suspended. That is beyond unsatisfactory; it is completely unacceptable.

However, Northern has not stopped there. We learned on Friday that Arriva Northern had extended the suspension by a further two weeks, to 2 July. That was possible only because the Government had rubber-stamped its request to extend that appalling suspension. A spokesperson for the Department for Transport said that it did not object to that “operational decision”, despite the fact that the Secretary of State himself had assured me that he was

“not prepared to accept more than the current two weeks”

and that he had been

“clear to Arriva that doing this over the long term is simply unacceptable”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 58.]

Those are the Secretary of State’s own words, on the record, from the statement in the House of Commons on 4 June—words that he repeated to me and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness when we met him that evening. It sounds very much to me, and to many of us, as though the Secretary of State said one thing to the House on that Monday and in practice did the opposite on Friday.

This calamity could not have come at a worse time. The cancellations have occurred during the Easter holidays and through the May half-term, and they are now hitting the local economy during the early summer season. There are fears that the substandard or non-existent provision could stretch into the summer holidays.

Let me gently remind the Minister that we are not a dispensable backwater. After London, we are Britain’s second biggest visitor destination. Our contribution to the UK economy is huge and our contribution to the broader British brand is unrivalled. The lack of trains has already had a catastrophic impact on the people of Cumbria, and the toll that it will inevitably take on the local economy could be enormous. Over the past few weeks, local young people taking their A-level and GCSE exams have found themselves stranded or late to school. People have missed hospital appointments and benefits assessments, while others have been regularly late to work. One woman I spoke to is having to move house from Staveley to Kendal just so that her kids can get to and from school every day and she is not blighted by the worry of her 12-year-old child being stranded in town and unable to get home.

Northern has not only failed to do its job, but completely undermined local confidence in this stretch of railway. My constituents are voting with their feet, and the sight of deserted train platforms along the line is now all too familiar. The replacement bus services are barely used by locals at all. Tourists use the service only because they see no alternative.

However, Northern’s utter failure to do its job and provide adequate train services in Cumbria is not limited to the Lakes line. Over the past few months, the Lakes, Furness and Cumbrian coast lines have all experienced shocking services.

There are also concerns about staffing levels at Northern. It is short of train crew to cover the new Cumbrian Coast timetable, and the Northern control centres are so overstretched that the routes in Cumbria seem to have fallen right to the bottom of its list of priorities. Over the past month, there have been daily cancellations of trains through Workington, including the last train of the day, which is a huge inconvenience and runs the risk of stranding people miles away from home, with no idea of how to get back. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is simply unsustainable and that Northern is badly letting down thousands of people on a daily basis?

I completely agree with everything that the hon. Lady has said. It feels to me very much as though all the lines in Cumbria are afterthoughts for Northern, given its huge empire. Many of the staffing problems would have been completely foreseeable and predictable by competent management who were planning for the future and had Cumbria’s interests at heart, so the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say what she has said.

As I said, over the past few months the Lakes, Furness and Cumbrian Coast lines have all experienced shocking services. My constituents who use the stations at Arnside, Grange-over-Sands, Kents Bank and Cark have experienced service equally dreadful to that experienced by those who use Oxenholme, Kendal, Burneside, Staveley and Windermere. That is not the result of accidental oversight; it has been caused by a series of appalling decisions by both Northern and the Government.

There seem to be three main failings that must be identified and fixed. First, the Government’s choice to cancel electrification of the Lakes line last year has very clearly contributed to the mess that we are in today. Northern took on the line on the understanding—this is the only excuse I will allow the company—that it would soon be running electric trains, and it planned and ordered on that basis. Because of the Government’s decision to cancel electrification, on the basis of inaccurate figures that must now be revisited, Northern were forced quickly to borrow from Scotland old diesel trains that their drivers were not trained to run.

Secondly, the Government awarded the Lakes line and Furness line franchises to Arriva Northern from April 2016. This was an unfolding disaster from day one, given the removal of good services from TransPennine and the introduction of substandard stock and service from Northern. The Minister should undo that mistake today and take the Furness and Lakes lines off Northern. It has clearly breached the terms of its contract: it is contracted to run trains and it has failed to do so.

Thirdly, we have seen incompetence from Northern and inertia from the Government. The fact that no statement was made to Parliament on the crisis until 4 June, despite months of poor performance and despite many of us raising the matter in the weeks and months beforehand—I raised it at Prime Minister’s questions and at Transport questions weeks before it came to the House of the Government’s own volition—leaves many of us questioning the Government’s commitment to those of us in the far north-west.

When the Secretary of State did finally make a statement to the House, it was in part to explain that he had permitted Northern not only to cancel trains, but to cancel an entire line for what turned out to be a month. That cancellation is as unprecedented as it is unacceptable.

In the last few days, a number of us have chosen to prove that we could and would do what the Government and Northern rail could or would not. On Sunday, thanks to the Lakes line rail user group, West Coast Railways and many other volunteers, we began a temporary and limited, but reliable and glorious, service on the Lakes line. The Lakelander has been successfully running on that line for the last four days, and it has kept to time.

Many in Government and the rail industry have helped us—they know who they are, and they probably would not thank me if I named them—but many have not been so helpful. As we have gone through the process of reintroducing trains to England’s most picturesque railway line, we have seen from the inside the lack of co-ordination and can-do spirit in some parts of Government and the rail industry. Never have I seen so much buck-passing or excuse-making as I have in the last few days. Despite that, we now have a limited but excellent service on the Lakes line—a heritage operator on a commuter route.

I do not need to tell hon. Members that that is not a long-term solution, so I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm what action he plans to take. Will he remove the Lakes and Furness lines from Northern as a matter of urgency and run those services directly from the Department until a suitable operator can be identified with the necessary resources, competence and commitment that those two superb lines deserve? The Secretary of State told me and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness that he would look at that option two weeks ago, so what progress have the Government made?

Will the Minister look again at the case for the electrification of the Lakes line? We now know that the Secretary of State cancelled the electrification last year based on figures that were ludicrously inaccurate. The model that he threw out was based on a service with trains running on at least two tracks, at 125 mph and at intervals of less than two minutes. I respectfully remind the Minister that a brief look at the Lakes line demonstrates that we require none of those things. As a result of using that inaccurate model, it was assumed that the electrification would cost more than double what it would cost to electrify the line in reality. Given the enormous damage done to the reputation of the Lakes line by Northern and the Government, does the Minister agree that the best way to show ongoing commitment to it would be to keep the Government’s initial promise to electrify the line?

Will the Minister fulfil the promise made to me by the Secretary of State in yesterday’s debate to ensure funding to support a marketing campaign to repair and boost the reputation of the Lakes line and of the wider Cumbrian economy? I have forwarded a formal bid for that package to him. I am grateful to Cumbria Tourism, which I asked to draft that proposal and which came up with an excellent bid. I understand that the Minister spoke to the chief executive of Cumbria Tourism this morning, and I am grateful to him for that, so I hope that he will be able to announce today that he will endorse that bid.

Given the chaos on our railways, will the Minister clarify his and the Secretary of State’s powers? On the east coast main line, it appears that the Government have the power to remove a franchise from an operator because the shareholders deem it unprofitable. However, Northern, which has demonstrated an inability to run a basic train service, still retains its franchise. Why has the Secretary of State not intervened? Is it because he does not have the power? In that case, when will the Government seek such powers from Parliament? I, for one, would be happy to vote to grant them. Or is it that he has those powers but has chosen not to use them, in which case he has quite some explaining to do to the people of Cumbria?

It appears that the Government are prepared to take a line away from a rail company when shareholders are losing money, but when passengers are left stranded and are forced to miss work and school, they simply look the other way. That raises the question: what is the purpose of the railways? Are they a public service that underpins our economy, or simply an opportunity for private profit at public expense?

In arranging the Lakes line temporary shuttle service over the last few days, it has become clear that when there is a commitment to a railway line, a passion to serve local people and a determination to succeed, anything is possible. The question is: is the Northern franchise not simply too big and too unwieldy for its own good? Would it not be better for the Cumbrian lines to be taken out of the franchise altogether and run as a micro-franchise so that the people who run our lines are also the people who are committed to them?

I was walking with my children along the old railway line at Sandside between Milnthorpe and Arnside last week. We talked about what had happened to that old line—why it had been closed, the tracks removed and the viaduct dismantled. The Beeching axe fell more than half a century ago on lines that the industry had given up on. It is painfully clear to all of us that Northern has given up on Cumbria. For the sake of everyone who relies on the Lakes and Furness lines, from local students and commuters to our millions of visitors, I call on the Minister to give Northern its marching orders. The travellers of Cumbria are at the end of their tether and, frankly, so am I.

I congratulate you, Dame Cheryl, on your elevation. I thank the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) for his generosity in allowing me a couple of minutes to speak. I congratulate him on securing the debate and on the key role he clearly played in getting a rail service running on the Lakes line.

I will add a couple of remarks about the Furness line and the Cumbria coast line, which are integral parts of the package. I agree with all the calls the hon. Gentleman made. Surely, there is a case that Northern has broken the terms of its contract across its network, particularly in Cumbria, so there must be a case for stepping in in the way that he described.

The Minister must be aware that the Cumbria coast line’s passenger numbers have shown a frightening drop-off since Northern came in. At a time when we are building a world-class civil nuclear corridor, that is clearly not in the country’s interest. On the Furness line, there has been a 500% increase in cancellations since Northern took over the franchise. The recent upsurge in trains running has been made possible, as the company admits, only because the Lakes line has not been running so drivers have been available. In rectifying the problems on the Lakes line, I make a plea to the Minister not to rob Peter to pay Paul. The Furness line and the Cumbria coast line are absolutely vital.

Surely, it is time to admit that the move by the Government and the company to impose driver-only operated trains and to ban vital and popular guards from trains was wrong. The Government can make things better for passengers who are suffering yet more strike action because of that wrong-headed move.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) on securing this debate, which gives us the chance to discuss the Lakes line and Northern in some detail. That is important at this time of significant disruption to passenger services, which affects his constituents and those of the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (John Woodcock), who also made some powerful points. Let me not forget the points made by the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman) on behalf of her constituents.

I want to remind all hon. Members that the Department’s overriding priority is to restore the reliability of the service across the network. The Secretary of State has left franchise owners, including Northern, under no illusion that they must urgently improve their operational performance. We are also seeking to ensure that we learn all the lessons of why we are in this position and of what has happened since the introduction of the timetable on 20 May, so we have commissioned an independent report by Stephen Glaister, the chair of the Office of Rail and Road.

On Northern’s performance, passengers have experienced unacceptable disruption to their journeys on parts of the network, particularly on the Lakes line. There is a very long way to go until performance reaches what anyone would regard as a reasonable level, but, as I said yesterday, there are signs of improvement. We are starting to turn a corner. The introduction of a temporary timetable by Northern on 4 June will start to rebuild passengers’ trust. The first signs are promising. Industry figures show that over the first two weeks of the reduced timetable, 80% of trains arrived on time and 4% of trains were cancelled or arrived significantly late. That compares to the previous two-week period when 66% of trains arrived on time and an average of 12% of trains were cancelled or significantly late. That is clearly not yet good enough by any stretch; I am not by any means suggesting that. What is important is that we build on that improvement and ensure that over the coming weeks Northern makes further progress towards restoring journeys and reducing disruption as rapidly as possible. Northern plans to run that timetable until the end of July, when it will review progress and hopes to significantly increase the number of timetabled services while continuing to ensure increasing stability.

On the Lakes line, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale has said, Northern took the decision to implement an interim timetable from the morning of 4 June and, within that timetable, to effect a temporary suspension of all its services on the Lakes line. That was an operational decision taken by Northern and accepted by Transport for the North, which co-manages the franchise along with the Department for Transport, as the best temporary solution for passengers. That gave the operator greater flexibility to allocate work and training, and it concentrates resources on providing a more resilient train service on wider parts of the network, while providing Lakes line passengers with a more reliable service.

The Minister says that Transport for the North and the Department for Transport share the franchise. Can he clarify that the Department was asked for and granted permission to extend the suspension of services on the Lakes line?

Yes, I can confirm that the franchise is co-managed by Transport for the North, which represents the 19 local transport authorities and local businesses, and the Department for Transport, through the Rail North Partnership. The Rail North Partnership accepted Northern’s operational decision, and the Department for Transport did not accept the decision that went to the Transport for the North board and to the Department for Transport for approval.

The Transport Secretary has been very clear that the line must be open as soon as possible, and Northern is working to keep customers on the move, especially with the tourist season soon reaching its busiest time. From 11 June, the bus service was increased to a pattern of three buses an hour, compared with the usual hourly train service. As well as Northern, both Transport for the North and Transport Focus have been working to obtain feedback from passengers about the replacement bus service. I understand that there has been recognition that the bus service is regarded as acceptable.

I am aware that an open-access operator, West Coast Railways, has agreed access with Network Rail and holds a valid safety certificate with the Office of Rail and Road, permitting it to run services. I want to congratulate the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale on his efforts in galvanising services along the route. In the meantime, the Rail North Partnership and the Department have focused on the introduction of full scheduled Northern services. I am pleased to note the announcement yesterday of a shuttle service between Oxenholme and Windermere offering 12 services daily to commence from 2 July. Northern has consulted Cumbria County Council, the Rail North Partnership and Transport for the North on the details of that shuttle service, which will be an important next step for the resumption of high-quality services in the Lakes area.

On why problems happened and what is being done about them, as hon. Members know, Northern has faced a shortage in the availability of drivers with appropriate route and traction knowledge in various locations, which has, unfortunately, led to far more delays and cancellations to train services. As a result of the delay to electrification schemes in the north-west, Northern is currently undertaking a significant training plan for drivers. That training is planned to continue until the end of July. Northern has also worked hard with ASLEF regarding the situation around rest day working and is hopeful of finding a longer-term resolution that will improve performance. Once the problems are resolved, we will have a much better service for passengers. I understand that that is small comfort to them when things are not working as they should, but once we are through this difficult period, we will have a better railway at the end of it, particularly once all the new trains start to arrive later this year.

On compensation, we are clear that passengers on the lines that have been severely affected will receive additional compensation. My Department is working closely with Network Rail, train operators and stakeholders to introduce a special compensation scheme as soon as possible. We have already recommended to the board of Transport for the North that passengers who buy weekly, monthly or annual tickets on Northern and TPE-affected routes should be eligible to claim up to four weeks’ compensation. We are inviting Transport for the North to work with the operators on the detail of the scheme, which will be announced by the operators in due course so that passengers make compensation claims from early July. I hope that Transport for the North’s board will be able to confirm the final details of the compensation scheme by the time of its next board meeting on 28 June, so that payments can begin to flow in July.

The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale asked about support for the northern economy. We are looking at options to support the Northern economy further, and we expect Northern to fund a marketing campaign encouraging travel to affected areas by train, including the Lakes line when it resumes operation by Northern.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness asked structural questions about the shape of the franchise and its future. I understand that passengers have been frustrated by the changes that have happened since services were transferred from TPE to Northern a couple of years ago. The rolling stock is not as good, and reliability has suffered in a way that is not acceptable. There was also understandable disappointment that the Lakes line will not be electrified as previously planned.

To press the Minister on that point, I spoke to Mark Carne a couple of weeks ago and he said he would look again at electrification of the Lakes line. Admittedly, that was before I criticised his award of a CBE, but I hope that he does not take that personally. I would be grateful if the Minister paid serious attention to the possibility of reopening that case, given the evidence I put forward in my speech.

We are looking very carefully at how we can deliver the passenger benefits that electrification would have delivered along the Lakes line. We are continually assessing projects to ensure they offer the best approach. Technology, as the hon. Gentleman knows, is advancing very quickly, and the Government are committed to using the most suitable, practical and affordable approach to modernising each part of the network. Bi-mode trains and other technologies mean that we do not need to electrify every bit of every line to achieve significant improvements, and we will electrify lines only where it delivers a genuine benefit to passengers.

Northern will begin work to explore the possibility of deploying alternative-fuel trains on the route by 2021. It will be a trial to pilot trains capable of using the electrified mainline to Manchester airport and then switching to battery power sources on the Lakes line. Until that happens, the Secretary of State has committed to new trains operating on that line from 2019, subject to the business case.

All stations on the Northern network will benefit from a £38 million investment in bringing stations up to standard, delivering new platform seating, replacement shelters, new waiting rooms and toilets and customer information screens. That will be delivered by the station improvement fund and will also include ticket machines, real-time information and help points at every station with at least 10 passengers using it every day. There will be an additional £9 million investment in making stations more inclusive and accessible.

The Department, working through the Rail North Partnership, is putting in place an action plan for Northern, which includes improving driver rostering to get more trains running now, increasing driver training on new routes, additional contingency drivers and management presence at key locations in Manchester and putting extra peak services in the timetable along the Bolton corridor. Northern has also announced that, until the end of July, it will run fewer services than were originally planned, per the May timetable, to give passengers greater certainty and to increase opportunities for driver training. That temporary measure is necessary to stabilise the service, enabling improvements to be introduced.

I hope that I have reassured hon. Members of the seriousness with which the Government are taking the disruption facing passengers. We are taking action to resolve the problems as quickly as possible, to compensate passengers and to learn the lessons that will help prevent such problems happening in future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.